It is time they were replaced with something that better reflects what London needs
The zonal fares system for London Underground and National Rail journeys in London should be reformed. It is no longer the best way to achieve the objectives of speeding up ticket purchase, making similar journeys equitably priced and rationing services where demand is greater than capacity. They are not permanent fixtures. We once used the zones for the buses, but we stopped doing that twenty years ago and nobody even seems to have noticed.
Grouping stations into zones back in the early 1980s was done to simplify London Underground tickets and speed up purchase. The central zone 1 is priced higher than the others, because back in 1983 that was where jobs were focussed, and the tube was busiest. But things have changed.
Jobs, journeys and overcrowded trains have spread out across the network. For example, Canary Wharf is a significant trip generator with capacity issues at peak, yet pricing does not reflect this. The role of the fares system should be to deter unnecessary journeys when and where there is excess demand and encourage them when and where there is not.
The next mayor should use the potential of Oyster and contactless technology to replace the zonal fares system that was carried over from paper tickets. This would mean eliminating zones and replacing them with areas of the network in which fares are charged at a higher rate when they are at capacity. This in practice would probably mean most of zone 1 retained, perhaps expanded in some places and a few islands like Canary Wharf added.
For the rest of the network, and for most of the time, London should adopt a low flat fare. This will encourage additional trips. This is particularly important for Outer London where the mayor seeks to convert car journeys to public transport. This will only work if fares are seen to be cheap and convenient.
That’s the easy part and clearly within the mayor’s powers. The next thing the mayor must do is deal with the inequity of South London rail passengers paying more than North Londoners. There are fascinating historic reasons for this that I won’t go into, but let’s blame privatisation for convenience.
There are several potential solutions for this problem. The mayor could wait until they gain control of suburban rail lines in London, but this might take some time. Or they could come to an agreement with London rail operators on pricing. There is precedent for this. The current rail fare settlement for pay as you go fares was agreed by Boris Johnson in 2009 and implemented in 2010. This deal should be revisited.
Getting back to buses, the network has an important role in providing an alternative to the Underground. It is usually slower and cheaper. But if you switch from a tube journey to the bus you pay twice. The next mayor should adapt pricing to reflect journeys taken rather than modes used. The Hopper fare shows the potential of a time limited journey. If the principle was applied to bus and tube we could see, for example, a bus journey included in the price of a preceding or subsequent tube journey. This encourages use where there is capacity and offers fairer pricing for people who must mix modes to complete their journey.
One of the advantages of the Oyster and contactless system is the ability to change the fares system overnight. But we’ve squandered that opportunity and ended up with a complex and inequitable fares regime that does not support the transport strategy of the mayor. Now is the time to be radical and do things differently.